Liquefied Natural Gas: The Explosive Energy Debate

With consumers facing rising gasoline costs and skyrocketing prices for home heating oil this winter, the debate over the short- and long-term future of America’s energy supply rages on. Some observers point out that it’s getting tougher for environmentalists to distinguish among sources of energy that are acceptable and those that should be met with picket lines. This question is being raised with regard to the once universally despised specter of nuclear power, and it’s also being applied to liquefied natural gas (LNG) storage facilities.

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The Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that the national demand for LNG will increase nearly 40 percent over the next two decades. New power plants run on natural gas are expected to lead to an 80 percent increase in demand for LNG by 2025, according to the EIA. As Americans are searching for a way to become less dependent on imported oil, some are looking to relatively clean LNG, possibly as a transitional fuel that can help wean us from oil and allow a segue to renewables.

The supporters of the proposed Broadwater LNG terminal in Long Island Sound make just that case: “Natural gas plays a vital role in providing a bridge from traditional fossil fuels to a renewable energy future,” it says on the Broadwater Energy website. “An abundant and reliable source of natural gas gives electricity providers the option to convert existing power plants to natural gas power generation while alternative, even cleaner technologies evolve. Natural gas is also a feedstock for hydrogen, which is seen by many as an important future energy source that will lead to efficient and clean fuel for use by utilities and in transportation systems.”

However, the long-term benefits of an increased LNG supply could be a moot point if some state and local officials around the country have anything to say about it.

Currently, several states are embroiled in heated battles with the federal government over the proposed construction of LNG storage and regasification facilities. Connecticut, Rhode Island, California and Oregon are some of the first states that could have their local waters targeted by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) projects.

The largest and possibly the most controversial proposed LNG station is the barge known as Broadwater, which would be located in New York waters of Long Island Sound. The gigantic floating storage unit—roughly the size of four football fields and 10 stories high—would be anchored directly in the center of the widest part of the Sound, about nine miles from the New York coastline and 11 miles from Connecticut. Broadwater is a joint venture between energy companies TransCanada and Shell U.S. Gas and Power.

This facility would be a major entrance point for LNG coming into New England and New York, directly supplying New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and possibly Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. Housed in this floating facility would be a docking bay for incoming tankers and a regasification unit to turn the liquid back into gas. The regasified product would then be pumped through a (proposed) 25-mile underground pipeline to the Iroquois pipeline that currently runs under Long Island Sound.

Though there is a projected need for natural gas in the area, many local residents oppose the plan. Aside from the lack of a thorough regional energy assessment, opponents say there are many other environmental concerns that go along with a project such as this. Leah Schmalz of the Norwalk, Connecticut-based Save the Sound Foundation argues that the structure, which will take several years to complete, will disturb sediment and wildlife species for miles, even outside of the construction zone. The anchors holding the floating barge are likely to leave permanent damage to the Sound floor, says Schmalz, and the pipeline needed to connect the station to the current infrastructure will disturb even more of the sea bottom.

Schmalz argues that other energy infrastructures currently located in the Sound have “not been environmental successes.” She points to both the current Iroquois Pipeline and the Connecticut Light and Power cables in Norwalk as prime examples, both of which she says had construction problems that left the ecologically fragile Sound permanently altered, even though project coordinators had promised otherwise.

Once constructed, the LNG facility will operate within an estimated four-mile exclusion zone and will be visited every three days by a tanker carrying the equivalent of 3.5 billion cubic feet of gas. This exclusion zone, as well as zones around the incoming tankers, will greatly impact the commercial and recreational uses of Long Island Sound, claims the Anti-Broadwater Coalition. About $5.5 billion is taken in annually through commerce on the Sound, and the coalition believes the terminal would decrease this figure.

Save the Sound also expects the Broadwater facility to have operational pollutants, such as industrial chemical runoff and excess heat through daily LNG regasification. Additionally, the risk of accidents, spills, fires and other environmental catastrophes is always present with a facility of this nature.

Which brings up another concern held by local organizations: the threat of terror attacks. With so much explosive material being transported and processed in a densely populated area, some people worry that the Broadwater facility would be a prime target for hostility from anti-American groups. If an attack were to occur, the entire barge would effectively become a fuel-air bomb, which is based on the principle of using rapidly expanding aerosol solutions mixing with oxygen to create an explosion. According to the Military Analysis Network, the blast wave from a military style fuel-air bomb can travel more than 6.5 miles—and those devices contain only about 225 pounds of aerosol-blasting agent. The Broadwater facility could contain the compressed equivalent of nearly five billion cubic feet of gaseous material at any given time.

In Oregon, where a LNG storage facility is proposed on the banks of the Columbia River, local residents have also raised the question of terrorist attacks. One Oregon local even asked the companies for a life insurance policy to cover him in case something ever went wrong; he received no response. The Columbia River facility would be used to supply roughly one billion cubic feet of natural gas per day to much of the Pacific Northwest if it is approved.

California and Rhode Island have filed lawsuits, as has Connecticut, to take back control of these proposals from the federal government. Some Connecticut officials worry that Broadwater, the world’s first floating LNG station and the first constructed under federal authority, could give FERC unbridled precedent to construct any type of energy facility anywhere the agency sees fit. John Schneider, chief of staff for Congressman Timothy Bishop (D-Long Island) says this project would set a “horrible precedent” for the country as a whole. Repeated calls to Broadwater’s representatives went unanswered.

The concerns over these LNG facilities raise some interesting questions about energy planning and local autonomy. As several officials have suggested, LNG plants should be located in regions that actually have a demonstrable need for the energy they can deliver. In Oregon and California, regional energy assessments and environmental impact reports for proposed LNG plants are underw

ay. In Long Island Sound, such planning is still in the future, if it happens at all. Adrienne Esposito of the Anti-Broadwater Coalition says “meaningful conservation” could sufficiently curb demand, thus negating the need for an LNG terminal, and that renewable forms of energy, such as wind power, could support growing future demands. Esposito says, “Just because we don’t have the right plan, doesn’t mean we should accept the wrong plan.”

Others say that the environmental community is being disingenuous, using “renewable energy” as boilerplate when in fact wind and solar still make up a tiny part of the nation’s energy grid. The Bush administration and many Wall Street analysts have long argued that simply calling for more renewables and conservation falls far short of addressing the nation’s actual energy needs. And some environmentalists also oppose large-scale renewable energy proposals (such as the Cape Wind Farm), largely on aesthetic or “view shed” objections.

Kimberly Larson of the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) system counters that this charge is unfair, because fossil fuels are part of a mature industry with massive government support and subsidies already in place, while the true potential of renewable energy and conservation is hindered by a lack of federal support and an uneven playing field. Critics respond that environmentalists have to work within current constraints.

In this whole debate one thing is clear: our dependence on imported oil is growing. Though much of the LNG that would come into the U.S. would be imported as well, a significant percentage would originate from countries outside of the Middle East. Additionally, since natural gas is usable directly out of the ground, there would be no need for the new wave of dirty refineries proposed by the Bush administration. Also, since natural gas burns cleaner than oil, there would be less emissions.

In balancing risk versus reward, environmentalists have their work cut out for them in helping fashion America’s energy future.

MICHAEL LATRONICA is an intern at E/The Environmental Magazine.

Editor’s note: The upcoming November/December 2005 issue of E Magazine includes a Current article further analyzing the debate over LNG issues.

CONTACTS:

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